On this date, February 27, in the year 1860, a former Illinois congressman and unsuccessful Senate candidate named Abraham Lincoln delivered a powerful speech in the Great Hall of the newly founded Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science & Art in New York City, my alma mater
. Lincoln's "Cooper Union Address,
" also known as his "Right Makes Might" speech, systematically analyzed the attitudes of all the signers of the US Constitution on the question of the expansion of slavery. With a magnetic mixture of cogent analysis and folksy humor, on that day this gangly, somewhat uncouth looking frontier lawyer succeeded in convincing a skeptical eastern intelligentsia that he was serious presidential timber. "No man ever made such an impression on his first appearance to a New York audience," the New York Tribune
concluded. The CU Great Hall, which still exists, was then the largest secular meeting hall in New York City. Since 1860, the Cooper Union Great Hall has hosted the birth of the American women's suffrage movement, and the founding of the NAACP and of the Red Cross. A somewhat less momentous event, my graduating class's commencement exercise, took place in that same room in 1975.
In honor of Lincoln's historic address and my alma mater
, which gifted me with an entirely free quality college education (I majored in physics and math), I took out one of my Civil War provenance watches today: a Waltham Appleton, Tracy & Co. grade Model 1859, SN 31,928, finished in May of 1860, the same year as Lincoln's speech. The movement was purchased in a silver "A.T. & Co." hunting case by a young Harvard student, John Hodges Jr. of Salem Massachusetts, who had his name and the town of his birth engraved on the dust cover. When the Civil War erupted in April of the following year, Hodges left his studies to become one of our nation's First Defenders, the men who answered then President Lincoln's initial call for 75,000 troops to defend the Union. From the start of his military career as a private in the Salem Zouaves, which subsequently was consolidated into the 8th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry as Company I, Hodges continued his service as a first lieutenant in the 19th MA Infantry, and then as a major in the 50th MA Infantry, which saw fighting around White Bayou and Port Hudson in Louisiana in 1863. (Pvt. Hodges of the Salem Zouaves is shown in the group picture below, seated on the ground at lower left. The next image is of Hodges likely when he was a major.) Then in early 1864, Hodges was commissioned as the Lieutenant Colonel of the 59th MA Infantry.
The 59th MA started out in April of 1864 with 950 men on its roster, when they went with newly promoted Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant into Virginia on his blood-soaked Overland Campaign as part of the Union's Army of the Potomac. The 59th MA saw hard fighting at the Wilderness, and under Hodges's command, at Spotsylvania, North Anna, and Cold Harbor, four of the most sanguinary and terrifying battles of the war. By the time the 59th MA reached Petersburg VA in June of 1864, they were down to 250 men. Lt. Col. Hodges had been in command of the regiment for nearly the entire campaign. Then on July 30, 1864, the 59th MA's brigade led the Union advance during the disastrous Battle of the Crater. The Union plan was to penetrate the Confederate defenses around the crucial rail junction of Petersburg by detonating a large explosion in a tunnel that was dug beneath the rebel works by Pennsylvania coal miners at a place now known as Elliott's Salient. If it had been properly organized and equipped, the assault might have achieved a breakthrough and ended the war nine months earlier. Alas, the Battle of the Crater was a poorly organized and ill-equipped debacle, and Lt. Col. Hodges was one of 3,728 Union casualties that day.
As John Hodges was nursing a fresh wound while leaning against the side of the steep-sided crater blasted by the explosion, he was killed instantly by shrapnel from a confederate shell. One of Hodges' surviving compatriots retrieved his watch from his pocket and enclosed it along with a letter to John's older brother, Captain Thorndike Deland Hodges of the 35th US Colored Troops (a.k.a., the First North Carolina Colored Volunteers). These events, and the fact that John's watch was in his pocket when he was killed in action on July 30, 1864, are documented in the Harvard Memorial Biographies Volume II, to which Thorndike Hodges contributed five pages about his brother. Thus ended the life and military career of 22 year old John Hodges Jr., but not necessarily the war time service of his watch. For it is very possible that Thorndike carried his brother's watch when he commanded his company of black troops of the 35th USCT, nearly all of whom were newly emancipated slaves, at the Battle of Honey Hill, in Jasper County, SC, on November 30, 1864. At Honey Hill, the 35th USCT fought alongside the more storied 54th Massachusetts Infantry, whose courageous assault on the rebel Fort Wagner was portrayed in the Hollywood movie, Glory
. Both units fought valiantly at Honey Hill, sustaining heavy losses. The last picture shown here is a post-war image of Thorndike Hodges, who served one term in the Massachusetts State Assembly, in which he is sporting a watch chain on his vest. One would like to imagine that John's watch was on the other end of that chain.